The Knights Templar were traditionally known, here in Brittany, as the Red Monks. Their evil deeds and cruel reputation survived in the popular imagination long after their medieval heyday; cruel ghosts, condemned to forever wander the lonely places to atone for their terrible and abominable crimes.
Following the success of the First Crusade, a number of feudal domains were established in the Holy Land by European Christian knights. However, these realms lacked the full military resources necessary to maintain little more than a tenuous grip on their territories; most crusaders returned home after fulfilling their vows. Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and the other holy sites therefore continued to remain subject to peril and attack.
It was to alleviate the plight of these pilgrims that a band of French knights led by Hugh de Payns vowed to devote themselves to the pilgrims’ protection and to form a religious community for that purpose. Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, was quick to grant them quarters in a wing of the royal palace, said to have been the site of the former Temple of Solomon, from which they took their name: The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, more popularly known as the Templar Knights.
To gain the support, supplies and manpower necessary to deliver on their vows, de Payns embarked on a major fund-raising tour of the kingdoms of western Europe in 1127. His efforts were well rewarded; the new order received significant donations and political backing from many of Europe’s most noble families and also secured the Church’s official sanction at the Council of Troyes in 1129. It was during this first European tour that the Templars received their first donations within the Duchy of Brittany; lands in the country of Retz.
In 1139, Pope Innocent II granted the order special privileges: the Templars were allowed to build their own oratories and were not required to pay tithes; they were also exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, being subject to the pope alone. This was also around the time that the Duke of Brittany, Conan III, whose father had fought in the First Crusade, ceded property to the Templars on the outskirts of the cities of Nantes and Rennes. The Duke also granted the order an exemption from taxes and awarded them lucrative market rights in Nantes.
The rule of the order was modelled after the Benedictine Rule, especially as applied by the Cistercians. Renouncing the world, the Templars swore an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience, just as the Cistercians and other monks did. Like other monks, the Templars heard the Divine Office and were expected to honour the fasts and vigils of the monastic calendar. They were also required to live in community but, unlike other monks, were not strictly cloistered nor were they expected to perform devotional reading.
The Templars were originally divided into two classes: knights and sergeants. The knights came from the aristocracy and were thus trained in the arts of war and generally assumed leadership positions in the order. Only the knights wore the Templars’ distinctive regalia of a white mantle emblazoned with a red cross. The sergeants, usually from lower social classes, served as both warriors and servants and dressed in black. A third class was eventually added, the chaplains, who were responsible for holding religious services, administering the sacraments and addressing the order’s spiritual needs.
With increased resources, the Templars swiftly expanded their remit in the Holy Land; from protecting the pilgrim trails, the order moved to staging a broader defence of the Crusader States, building and garrisoning castles and fortified settlements. Now a full military force, the Templars formed an important part of the military infrastructure of the Holy Land and gave much useful service in support of the Christian cause there.
While the Templars were sometimes opposed by those who rejected the notion of a religious-military order, their growing wealth and influence was also criticised by other religious orders such as the Benedictines and the Cistercians. However, the order enjoyed the support of powerful secular leaders and the full protection of the Church whose anathemas struck against any who opposed them. For instance, in 1213, the Bishop of Nantes obliged the Lord of Clisson to compensate the Templars for the damages he caused them and for a murder committed in their cemetery; in 1222, the Lord of Assérac was excommunicated for having refused to release Templars detained in his prisons.
Over time, the Templars amassed great riches, thanks, in part, to the lordships, manors and estates gifted to the order by the nobility of France, England, Italy, Portugal and Spain. By the mid-12th century, the Templars boasted an extensive property portfolio scattered throughout western Europe and the Holy Land. Giving land and property rights to the order was seen as a pious duty that some benefactors hoped would help secure the salvation of their souls and those of their loved ones. In Brittany, Duke Conan IV donated dozens of properties and good lands which would form the nucleus of the Templar presence in the region.
Making good use of their extensive privileges, the Templars constructed hundreds of structures, including churches, castles, farms and even entire villages such as Vildé-Guingalan. While the full extent of the Templar domains in Brittany might never now be known for certain, documents suggest that they once had holdings in around a hundred Breton localities. Many local traditions represent them as prolific builders and they were sometimes even honoured with constructions that pre-dated the founding of the order. Indeed, since the 18th century revival in interest in the Templars, there is hardly an old church or ruined castle whose foundation the locals here did not attribute to the Templars.
Perhaps the most famous Breton ruin associated with the Templars is the 12th century octagonal tower of Montbran which was, for a time, thought built by the Romans. Dominating the Frémur valley, this strong tower might have been built to guard against Norman incursions into Brittany but was more likely built to protect and control the ancient northern road that connected the east and west of Brittany and traffic headed to and from the great annual fair at nearby Pléboulle. Many Templar buildings were carefully sited near main traffic routes, coastal approaches or river crossings; all lucrative sources of revenue.
Initially, the Templars had eschewed the ties of the feudal hierarchy, wanting to remain free to answer the first call of the Holy Land but, over time, they accepted fiefs with all their charges. Their estate management eventually extended beyond simple farming; they cleared vast tracts of land in northern Brittany for growing cereals and breeding animals; they cultivated the vine and branched out into highly profitable processing activities such as producing wine and operating community ovens and mills. It is believed that they created, or at least promoted, great fairs and public markets such as those at Pléboulle and Les Biais.
Just as important as their vast country estates, a presence in major cities such as Nantes, Quimper and Saint Brieuc was vital to the order. Not only were these centres of trade and commerce where they could sell their goods or rent out their warehouses, they were also important communication hubs. The Templars’ military and political power allied with their broad geographic coverage allowed them to safely collect, store and transport goods and bullion across Europe and the Holy Land. Their international network of warehouses and secure transport links thus made them attractive as bankers to kings as well as to more humble pilgrims.
The fall of Acre, effectively the last crusader stronghold, in 1291 removed much of the Templars’ reason for being and the pope was keen to see the order merge with their great rivals, the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, better known as the Hospitallers. Having rejected the pope’s proposals, the order’s arrogance, great wealth and extensive landholdings inspired increased resentment towards them. While an ex-Templar had accused the order of blasphemy and immorality in 1305, it was on Friday 13 October 1307 that King Philip IV of France acted; ordering the arrest of every Templar in the country and the sequestration of their property.
The king accused the Templars of heresy and immorality; specific charges against them included idol worship (of a cat and a male head), homosexuality and numerous other errors of belief and practice. It was claimed that during the order’s initiation rite, the new member denied Christ three times, spat on the crucifix and was kissed on the base of the spine, on the navel, and on the mouth by the monk presiding over the ceremony. The charges, now generally recognized as without foundation, were seemingly calculated to stoke the contemporary fears of witchcraft.
The motives behind Philip IV’s desire to destroy the order are unclear; he may have feared their power and been motivated by a pious duty to destroy a heretical group or he may have seen an opportunity to seize their fabled wealth. Outside France, news of the charges levied against the Templars was greeted with incredulity, particularly in Brittany, England, Portugal and Aragon. However, the pope finally suppressed the order in March 1312 and the Templars’ property throughout Europe was slowly transferred to the Hospitallers or else confiscated by secular rulers. Knights who confessed and were reconciled to the Church were sent into retirement in the order’s former houses, which were now nominally run by the Hospitallers.
Here, as elsewhere, the Templars were arrested and their property sequestered but their downfall left little trace in the annals of Brittany, leading some to question the degree that each of the nine Breton bishoprics implemented the pope’s orders. One of the few claims made against the knights in Brittany alleged that, in Nantes, wheat from Templar warehouses was given to pigs rather than the poor. Sadly, only three depositions from Templars serving in Brittany at the time of the arrests have been preserved in the records of the papal commission sitting in Paris in 1310: each of the brothers attested that they had initially been heard in Poitiers where they had been absolved and reconciled to the Church.
A tradition of the 15th century records that when the French king’s men arrived in Nantes on 10 August 1308 to take possession of the Templar properties there, they were driven out of the city by a mob who declared that the Templar possessions did not belong to the king of France but to the Duke of Brittany and no other.
In Brittany, the Templars were popularly known as the Red Monks; a moniker unconnected with the colour of their costume but rather the dress of the Devil. Most local tradition here depicted them as ungodly; arrogant and debauched, leading a lifestyle that marked the public consciousness with once popular phrases such as “Drink like a Templar” or “Curse like a Templar”.
Around the town of Guingamp, the Templars were said to have spied on the young girls in the washhouses and to kidnap those that took their fancy. Like many other characters whose lives were said to have been sullied by evil deeds, the Templars cannot find rest, even in death. In some areas, the people believed they saw the ghosts of Templars wandering at night, mounted on skeletal horses covered with dirty funeral shrouds. They pursued travellers, attacking young women whom they kidnapped and that were never seen again.
According to local legend, the ancient chapel of Trioubry, about 25km south of Rennes, was originally built by the Templars. It was reported that, one stormy evening, a man from a nearby village took shelter in the ruins of the chapel which was suddenly illuminated on all sides. Adjusting his eyes to the light, the man noticed the knave of the chapel was filled with skeletons, and a tall monk, dressed in red, began to bear down on him. The man rushed out into the night and having covered several hundred metres, he turned to see the red monk retrace his steps and disappear under the rocks of the hill. It was said that this red monk, a former Templar, returned every evening in search of sinners to share with them his torments in hell.
On Brittany’s north coast, the Château du Guildo was said to be visited each night by the restless spirits of Templars who wandered the castle ruins, their backs bent under a crushing burden. These souls were believed to have been condemned, as punishment for their crimes, to carry, for eternity, the weight of all that they had stolen in life. A local farmer, having counted his sheaves after harvest, found a hundred more the next day; he believed that the Templars had returned to him a part of what they had once stolen from his parents. Nearby, at Ploubalay, the Templars were held to have had such a bad reputation in the locality that the rectors of the neighbouring parishes rang bells to warn people to guard their livestock and their daughters when the knights were abroad.
Just 13km to the south, an old manor house in Quévert is said to be haunted by a Templar who walks slowly along the avenue, stopping fleetingly at the manor’s well before moving off quickly in all directions. It is believed that the well conceals a stash of gold once taken by the knight, who died without being able to return it.
In Belle-Isle-en-Terre, local legend tells of a Red Monk, mounted on a horse of the same colour that threw lightning bolts through its muzzle, that is seen to descend from a granite outcrop outside the village before launching into the Guic river: whoever sees this apparition was thought certain to die within the year.
Returning to the north coast, a reputed subterranean passage linking the Templar chapel outside Pléboulle to the old watchtower of Montbran, some 700 metres away, was said to be home to a knight who had redeemed his wicked ways while still a serving brother. Some people claimed, on the darkest of nights, to have seen the red monk at large, he having left his eternal retreat to walk again amongst men. His beard was said to be so long that, in order to walk without hindrance, he had to lift it over his shoulder. Often the old chapel was seen surrounded by strange lights; thought to be the spectres of the knight’s former companions come to beg him piteously to intercede for them.
It was said that near the tower of Montbran lay a Templar cemetery where the knights buried there were as tall as in the time Noah. Local legend claims that one of these knights kidnapped a Norman princess and imprisoned her in the tower, where she slowly died of grief. The knight, to keep a memory of his prize, cut off one of her hands. Every year, on the anniversary of her pitiful death, she emerges from her tomb and walks in the old cemetery to the plot where the knight was buried; she goes to claim her hand that the wicked Templar had ordered buried with him.
In Brittany, the unfavourable memory of the religious orders that once peppered the land was not confined to the Templars alone. Many old stories accuse other monks of kidnap and keeping women captive, sometimes even of murder. In Béré, it was said that a young girl entered the priory of Saint-Sauveur and never reappeared; it was rumoured that she had been slain and buried within the church. Her vengeful spirit returns to terrorise the land under the guise of the monster popularly known as the Beast of Béré.
Unlike priests, sorcery was rarely attributed to monks here but several tales about the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Boquen talk of spell casting and magical, crop-destroying, potions and even that one of the last priors was a levitating sorcerer able to foretell the future.
An old Breton ballad, The Three Red Monks, collected from the oral tradition in the 1830s tells of a young girl, Katelik Moal, abducted by three Templars near the town of Quimper. Taken to their commandery in nearby Locmaria, the girl was held captive and subjected to the most abominable outrages. Her torment endured for eight long months, at the end of which the knights resolved to rid themselves of young Katelik and the baby she now carried; as they had done before for seven other girls from the area. They decided to bury her under the high altar of the commandery chapel and dug a pit as Katelik begged for her life while a hailstorm raged outside. It was at that moment that a lone traveller seeking shelter noticed the lights burning in the church. Reaching the door, he looked through the keyhole and saw a bound Katelik thrown into the pit, pleading for the holy oil of baptism for her child.
Rushing to Quimper, the witness roused Bishop Morel who quickly agreed to attend the commandery in all haste. Once there, the bishop had the flagstones lifted and the ground under the high altar dug up; he wept as the lifeless forms of young Katelik, who had torn her breast to her heart, and her child, were uncovered. Faced with this appalling scene, the bishop fell to his knees. For three days and nights, dressed in only sackcloth, he remained bent in prayer bowed towards the cold earth, surrounded by all the Templars of the community. At the end of the third night, the body of the child began to move; he opened his eyes, got up and walked directly towards the three knights, declaring: “These are they!”
Justice was soon served; the three culprits were tried, found guilty and burned alive; their ashes scattered to the four winds. However, earthly punishment was seemingly considered insufficient because since that day, these knights were condemned to wander the roads of southern Brittany, where, according to tradition, they continued their vile activities, kidnapping children who were never seen again.
It is difficult to assign, with any degree of accuracy, a timeframe for the many legends surrounding the red monks in Brittany but it is unlikely that they really date from the medieval period; chroniclers from that time make little mention of them. The traditions recorded in the 17th century seem to have been more ambivalent than negative but in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Templars are nearly always popularly portrayed as evil, self-serving figures.
Much has been written about how quickly the Order of the Temple was eradicated and in Brittany there were many legends that tell of the suddenness of their demise. The manors and castles they owned around Moncontour were all said to have collapsed in one night. Likewise, in nearby Yffiniac, their commandery was held to have been completely destroyed in just one night, while the Templar contingents at La Baussaine and Carentoir were all believed to have been killed overnight.
Many believe that such legends are allegorical, as the order did effectively collapse in the course of a single day. However, as with many of the myths surrounding the Templars, the truth is slightly separated from the folklore and it was not until May 1313 that the Breton assets of the order were eventually transferred to the Hospitallers; another religious-military order of knighthood founded some twenty years before the Templars and whose successor bodies remain very active to this day.